‘Good Music Will Win Over Anyone’
ORVILLE WRIGHT continues his series of interviews with the
country’s top steeband arrangers
Arddin Herbert, as arranger for Invaders steelband, is a fairly new face in a storied institution that spans seven decades. The band still maintains its original rehearsal space on Tragarete Road opposite the Queen’s Park Oval, and it was there on February 10, 2010 that I sat with Arddin as he was “bussin a lime” in the afternoon, waiting for the nightly rehearsal schedule.
OW: I know you have gone through the school system here where you did some musical studies, but where or what was your first arranging experience?
AH: It was with Players Symphony, a band from Belmont, and I arranged Fire Down Below. At that time I was at Trinity College and we sort of entered into a barter agreement so that Trinity would use their instruments and I would arrange for the band. Most of the players from Trinity filtered over to that conventional band and we went to Panorama.
Did you have any interaction with Ron Reid around that time?
I had interacted with Ron prior to that. It was in 1983 when Woodbrook Secondary and Trinity College combined to form Woodtrin, and he was the arranger and musical director and we went to Festival and won.
I am aware that you arranged for CASYM (Caribbean American Sports and Cultural Youth Movement) in New York but can you talk about how you ended up landing the arranger’s gig for Invaders?
Over the years Invaders—as an organization—has changed arrangers a number of times. I believe as one of the oldest steelbands it has had about twenty arrangers over the years, and the CASYM experience prepared me for the Trinidad experience. It was the case where a couple of members of the management team decided that Arddin has been a son of this band, and he has been doing some good work in New York, and they called and gave me a shot at it.
Who preceded you as far as arranger is concerned?
Did you feel any sort of pressure coming into that arranging chair?
Certainly. Because the expectation was so high, and I felt as though I had to take Invaders out of the doldrums really, because they had not been qualifying for the finals of Panorama. So it was like when your team isn’t winning and you go out and get a franchise player or you get a coach to make the team better, so it was a lot of pressure. But fortunately, by the grace of God, I made finals the first year.
That’s very good, what year was that?
2005. So, there were many people who didn’t know of me and they were asking ‘who is this foreigner?’ because they looked at me as a foreigner- which is crazy- but they see me as a foreigner.
Don’t feel so badly, they look at me the same way too, and I just crack up when they call me a foreigner. When I talk about the music and steelband, they say ‘Orville Wright? He ain’t living here, what he know ’bout steelband?’ But it is just part of the culture here. (Sustained laughter from both of us).
So the first year was quite successful in terms of getting the band to finals and our performance was really good, and I think we were the only band on that night to have gotten a standing ovation, and that’s when we played Say Say. You know, there is a CD titled Town Say, and that was based on the fact that people said Invaders should have won Panorama that year. So it was a really nice experience and it was filled with pressure. Filled, filled, filled!
One of the cultural things about steelband in Trinidad is that when you come into a situation like this, there could be tension within the ranks of the band in terms of the respectability that should be given to an arranger. In your case as a foreigner, arranger, that is, trying to raise the level of the band, did you experience anything like that?
Yes, the old heads and the young heads—the old heads they have been extremely supportive because they remembered me from a little boy growing up, so they were happy to see me return to take the helm and try and get Invaders to their first ever championship. The younger than the older heads were probably looking for a more local name, but obviously did not do their research to know where I had come from, my experience, qualifications and my commitment to the steelband movement. So they were skeptical, but because of the immediate success, it kind of made them back peddle.
Prior to your success, I am aware that an arranger in your position will feel that resistance when you are in the panyard. How did you choose to interact with the skeptics, in terms of winning them over?
Well that was not my focus in terms of trying to win them over. I was just trying to create and produce good music that could be appreciated by them, as well as the audience, as well as the judges. So I was not preoccupied with trying to psychologically win them over, but I just believed that good music would win over anyone.
Are you a trained musician?
When you say ‘trained musician’…( Arddin breaks out in hearty laughter. I try again).
Are you a schooled musician? Did you go to school to hone your arranging skills?
Well, I am formally trained and have a Bachelor’s of Music from Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, specializing in composition but not in terms of arrangement. What I learned was more of the conservatory traditional music education—classical type of stuff—and my instrument was pan.
So with regard to determining what style you wanted to adopt as an arranger, which of the arrangers did you seek out as a mentor? Was there a conscious effort to pattern your arranging style after any one arranger?
Certainly. In my early years, I have always been mesmerized by Boogsie Sharpe—mesmerized! The guy is a genius. He is a genius! So my music is heavily influenced by his style so much so that people are criticizing me and telling me that I am sounding too much like Boogsie and you will never win a Panorama if you stay in that vein. But my opinion is you have to have something concrete before you can go to the abstract so that you need to have a model to work from. Before you get your own style, you have to learn a style and then be able to say, I am going to move out of this box. This is not only in terms of music, but art, period. If you listen to the greats—be it R&B or pop—people sound alike, but eventually find a different style. Those sorts of questions, I just laugh and say they obviously don’t understand how music was handed down. Because even with the periods—Classical and Baroque for example—the composers of those eras learned from the composers that came before them and then they developed their own style. So I just listen to them and I don’t let them make me lose focus. But certainly Boogsie is one guy that I have always listened to and I will continue to listen to him. I have also listened to Bradley because he has a very unique style particularly with his extensions, his harmonies, his simplicity—yet he is very effective. Another arranger that I have also listened to was “Smooth” because of his ability to create excitement to the point where it is impossible to remain still—you must dance.
Can you talk a little bit about your methodology in terms of structuring your arrangement from intro to ending? In other words, do you plan your arrangement by saying that you want to achieve a certain amount of harmonic richness at this section as opposed to a melodically developmental section of the arrangement?
Depending on the piece of music and its theme—let’s say I am doing a song about war or thunder—whatever, then I try to create that sort of effect and the piece may not be very melodic, it will be punctuated. If I am doing a piece that is a tribute to a musician or someone like that, then I will try to create that effect—in other words—paying tribute in terms of musical prowess as far as melody, harmony, counterpoint is concerned. So it depends on the theme.
Do you write your arrangement out before you go to the yard?
No I don’t. As a matter of fact I was speaking to a couple of arrangers and they said that they score everything, but I like to come to the panyard and get the vibe from the panyard, the mood, and the energy of the players. I guess in this modern world that may be looked at as counterproductive, but it works for me. I also think that there is a certain amount of soul that comes out of that environment as opposed to sitting down and having the arrangement computer-generated. There is a certain kind of texture that you get from the yard because there are so many times that I would give a player a part and in listening back to the player play the given part, the player sometimes makes a mistake. It is not unusual for me to say ‘What! What was that?’ And the mistake sometimes sounds so much better than what I intended, and I use that mistake and develop it to a point where it really sounds good.
As an arranger myself, if I have to do an arrangement, I usually conceptualize the arrangement in my head before I actually sit down and write the arrangement. The mere fact that you get that texture and mood from the yard, there is the possibility that there can be a lack of connectivity or continuity from one section of the arrangement to another. Have you ever encountered a situation like that when you try to get these eight minutes of music together?
Well, certainly that happens. Then I take a step back and look at it and say ‘Ok, there is a lack of cohesiveness here and I have to bridge it’, and then I focus on that bridging, trying to make those two individual sections one. So it’s like marrying two different people but with the same goal, the same purpose, the same commitment. So that in fact does happen.
So is that an Arddin thing or do you get that inspiration from the players in the yard?
I think it is an Arddin thing because it’s deliberate and does not rely on any external forces, and I guess this is where my formal training may come in and say, you know what, the best way to approach this may be by doing so and so. Sometimes I just come in the yard and do it over and over- put in parts, and if I don’t like it I take it out, put in parts, take it out, so it also has an element of trial and error.
How long does it take you to put your tune down?
Typically, take for example in New York, I do that within a week because I have some young players that are…
Well I wouldn’t say crack-shots; they are very good. But I don’t look at them as crack-shots; they are very committed. Crack-shot has a sort of connotation—a gallery kind of ‘I good’ and that kind of thing. But they are just committed and have the passion and because of that I am able to put down that song within a week.
Do you ever have a situation in the band when one of the section leaders would come up to you and offer suggestions on your arrangement?
All the time. As a matter of fact, I have a couple of players here from New York, and I was taking out a part and one of them came to me and said ‘You taking that out? You crazy!’ I said to myself that while I am creating music- and I know what I want to create- I am not doing it in a vacuum, I am doing it for other ears. So I certainly listen to them and when I listen back to it I sometimes say, ‘That sounding real good!’. So I certainly take a lot of advice from everyone, but more from people that count. You know every one is opinionated so I am very careful in filtering what I change, and from whom I take advice.
In terms of the choice of tune for the band, I am aware that certain bands make a decision through a committee and pass that on to the arranger. Can you talk about what happens with you and the band?
Of course. With CASYM in New York, I have total control. If I say we’re playing Mary Had A Little Lamb, we’re playing Mary Had A Little Lamb. For the most part I do have that with Invaders, but the committee must hear about their choice and there are times when—you know you’re sure, oh yeah, that kind of thing—and this year we actually did three songs and made a choice as to the best one. I guess that came from the fact that the previous two years we have not been extremely successful because we did not qualify for the finals. There was a sort of nervousness about choosing the right song.
In the previous years, whose choice was it?
Mine. My guess was the committee decided to like—‘Umm, you know what? We have not qualified and the tune has been your choice’, and I really don’t get upset at all if the committee says play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. I will tell them that I have reservations but at the end of the day, I am the employee.
But does that interfere with your creative process though? Again, as an arranger myself, if I listen to a particular tune, I immediately hear things I can do with that tune. If I am being forced to arrange a tune that my head may not be totally into, the creative process is forced as opposed to having a natural flow. That may be good, but what are your thoughts on this?
Well certainly, when the pan tunes start coming out, what I do is start listening and I might hear a tune where I like the verse but I might not like the chorus, and there are some songs that you could really see some developmental ideas. But you know, I am of the opinion that management hires the arranger because of his or her specialty, experience, qualifications, and competence, so let the arranger have a major part in that decision-making. You have to believe in the arranger. But we are in an environment where everyone wants to win at all cost- and immediately. So it feels as though if some bands don’t see the kind of results they are looking for from an arranger after two years, they want to fire the arranger. But I quickly remind people that they have to look at how long it took Boogsie to win a Panorama, look how long it took Jit to win, and these guys are the best. So sometimes you have to be committed and put some trust in the arranger and build upon that trust. You see, arrangers have different styles, and players kinda get accustomed to a particular style, so when a new arranger comes in, the players must adjust and it takes time for them to understand what the new arranger is doing. You know, some arrangers might use the cellos to strum, some may use them to do something different- so it is all a gelling process.
Did you do any substantial listening to arrangers who preceded you in Invaders to find out any characteristics of an Invaders sound before you delved into this challenge?
I actually didn’t. I think it’s because of what I grew up learning, hearing and playing and the fact that from my perspective, there was not an Invaders sound that one could have gravitated towards.
The issue of feedback from the adjudicators is one that conjures up different emotions from the arrangers, so can you share with me your process with regard to assessing the comments you get? Do you make any adjustments, let’s say, from the prelims to the semis?
I delve into the things that make sense. For the most part, if I recognize that the band is small in size or the setup was not good, or this line was inaudible—fine—maybe we need to make an adjustment in terms of balance. But sometimes, judges say the weirdest things and I won’t pay attention to some of those things. Certainly, I think there is a flaw in design of the scoring system. There is an inherent flaw in the design. I do believe some of the judges try their best, but I think Panorama has become too academic. Re-harmonization! How much re-harmonization is sufficient to get the maximum points? Do you re-harmonize just a verse, a chorus? What do you do to get those points?
I am glad you raised that topic because over the past three to four years I have raised that very issue about the way the points have been broken down, especially re-harmonization. The sub-category now has the most points in arrangement and not all the arrangers utilize that technique to the point that it deserves the most points in arrangement. It was back in 2006 when “a high music person” recommended to Pan Trinbago that they add this specific breakdown to the sub-categories, and ever since it has been chaos.
Pan Trinbago needs to start recognizing that you need to have qualified people adjudicating. It’s unfair that you have all these people—again I respect everyone—but you can’t have people that specialize in—say just voice—judging pan, people who don’t understand complex rhythms and percussive idioms. It’s ridiculous. Also, you can’t have people who got their diplomas, certificates or degrees fifty years ago who have not continued to improve or upgrade their knowledge to understand what’s new, what’s hip or what has evolved as far as judging is concerned. The fact is you would continue to get the same results, and this is what has happened. People are saying that Panorama is getting boring because it’s always the same results, the same six or seven bands that are always in the finals, and I am not saying that they are not deserving—I am saying that when you have adjudicators that are trained one way, the expectation and their affection for a particular style would manifest into that very bland show of music. When you have a judge saying, ‘good hand action’. What does that mean? Good hand action? It’s really telling, and one of the things that I am always outraged about is sometimes they give scores or points and no comments whatsoever. My thing is, if you give me ten out of ten, you don’t have to say anything. But if you are going to give me seven or six or five, you have to specifically say why you are giving me five out of ten.
I don’t know if you are aware of it or heard it on Sunday at the Junior Panorama, but before Jemma Jordan started the competition for the under 21 category, she mentioned that there needs to be a competition for a flag waver. There is a competition in Trinidad for almost everything that happens with pan, and that may be a way to get people involved; but somehow it lays a foundation for this competitiveness among the participants that inevitably fuels every competitor into thinking that they are going to win—which is not practical.
What’s not practical? Their thinking that they could win or their just not winning? (Hearty laughter from both of us.)
It all goes back from my perspective to the judges because it is a fact at the ending of the World Steelband Festival or Pan Is Beautiful, you never hear the amount of rancour or acrimony after the results have been announced, and I believe that the primary reason for that is the judges in that competition are well respected. So when they say this is what the result is, there is a level of respectability and credibility they get from everybody who enters that competition. The same cannot be said about Panorama, and therein lies the role of the adjudicators who do not have the same level of respectability and credibility in the eyes of the arrangers and pannists.
Point well taken. Because I think the school or the Junior Panorama, for the most part, they would get it right, and it is because of the adjudicators who judge are arrangers and know what to look for, and you would not get that hostility. My question is, who is going to judge Boogsie? (Orville interjects: “Not who is going to judge, but who can judge Boogsie?”) Right, yeah. The judges that we do have- and not just Boogsie, I am just not using his name—some of them can’t even hold two sticks properly and understand the intricacies or complexities of what an arranger is trying to do. They don’t appreciate and understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you can’t judge it. I have always believed that judges should go around and listen to every band because if you are sitting down and hearing all this music for the first time, how could you judge that? How? They are trained in terms of voice and music education, and they are coming to judge this very complex percussive instrument—there is so much music that is going on at the same time and it has to change. One more thing I would like to add to this: I believe that they have to change the way they tally the final score. I believe that if you have a panel of seven judges and four judges believe Band A should win the competition, how should the other three, overpower that majority of four? That has to change.
There are many stakeholders in the pan community and a number of staunch Panorama supporters who believe- and are complaining- that Panorama is deteriorating. Given some of the issues you articulated during this interview, what would you like to see in terms of change to bring Panorama back to its glory days?
Well I think from the audience perspective, there are not much patrons again. Now, whether that is a result of the younger folks deciding to go to parties and all-inclusives and no longer really have any affection for pan, I don’t know. I am not sure if it is also a case of where people no longer know much tunes that are being played by pans, because the stations now are pushing a different sort of music (Orville chimes in: “At a metronome marking of 160 beats per minute!”) Yeah, yeah it’s moving, nothing is slow and makes the sort of sense that it used to. I certainly hope that Pan Trinbago starts to market it in some different way. They have to recognize that it’s not a case where pan or pan music is being appreciated the way it used to, and they have to employ a different approach, a different strategy to get patrons back in those seats. I also think that venue is so important. One day you have bands playing down in South Quay, you have bands playing in Victoria Square… we need to get some sort of facility that enhances pan music. They did away with the North Stand, and they have what is called the Greens where they have tents with people drinking and stuff. They don’t care what’s going on, and I don’t know if this is a way for them or the sponsors to make money. I believe in respecting the artform and have that lime somewhere down by the drag or something like that. But there you are playing and you have things going on on the other side.
You said your major in college was composition, and this year there were about forty-two tunes composed for Panorama. What do you think of those compositions and what do you look for when you decide on a composition for your band to play? Is it the melodic line? Is it the lyric? Is it the harmonic structure?
Well, it’s certainly a combination of all. Melody is extremely important, and I think if I had to choose one in terms of prominence, I would certainly go with melody and the harmonic structure, and then of course the lyrics. As I told you earlier, in terms of theme, I always try to get a song with a theme that I can work with. You see you are also playing to the audience and trying to get their thunderous applause and cheers to also influence some of the thinking of the judges.
Do you think that should play a role in how the judges arrive at their decision?
I believe that at the end of the day the audience should appreciate what you presented. Now, whether that is done separately in terms of having a people’s choice, that may be the way to go.
One of the nuances that I noticed this year is that many bands are incorporating some vocalese as part of their arrangements. What do you think of that?
I always liked anything that’s new, that’s catchy, that’s memorable. When I think back to the ’80s and ’90s, those songs were memorable songs. For some reason, you just don’t remember songs now. It’s not like saying you’re listening to I Music, Woman On the Bass, Curry Tabanca, Ah Goin and Party Tonight, Pan In A Minor, and Rebecca—songs that you remember and they jump out at you. But now, if you ask someone to hum a part of a song, they can’t do it. For some reason, it’s no longer happens. I’m not sure if it is too much Blackberries and iPhones and stuff that people are so wired elsewhere, but for some reason people just don’t remember memorable things again. And if in fact a vocal part is going to be a memorable moment—you know what? So be it.
This interview with Arddin was filled with lots of emotion, and there were times when Arddin and I were just caught up laughing at some of the anomalies of the Panorama competition, and we spent as long as a minute at times just cracking up at what we were discovering. I was impressed with Arddin’s very serious approach, but that seriousness did not prevent him from having fun with what he was hired to do. The mere fact that he knew and understood the role he had to play as an employee of Invaders’ organization was a healthy one. I believe that sooner or later, Invaders will achieve that goal of Panorama Champion under Arddin’s leadership as the arranger.